WASHINGTON — With trouble spots from Iran to North Korea, the military’s role in a Fourth of July celebration in Washington should be the least of the Pentagon’s worries.
Yet some retired and active-duty military officers, and, privately, even some Defense Department personnel said the participation of the military in President Trump’s “Salute to America” appears to politicize the armed forces on a day when the nation traditionally toasts its independence in a nonpartisan environment.
“Put troops out there so we can thank them — leave tanks for Red Square,” said Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, a retired four-star Marine general and former head of United States Central Command, who until earlier this year served in the Trump administration as a special envoy to help resolve disputes in the Persian Gulf.
On Wednesday, the president defended the show of firepower on Twitter.
“The cost of our great Salute to America tomorrow will be very little compared to what it is worth,” he wrote. “We own the planes, we have the pilots, the airport is right next door (Andrews), all we need is the fuel. We own the tanks and all. Fireworks are donated by two of the greats. Nice!”
The festivities have put the Pentagon in a bind in trying to both follow orders from the commander in chief while also trying to sidestep the inevitable accusation that Mr. Trump is being allowed to politicize the military.
The tanks, armored vehicles and military jets that will be streaking over the nation’s capital are part of Mr. Trump’s vision of a grand military parade, a goal he has pursued since attending a Bastille Day celebration in Paris in 2017. The president originally wanted a similar show of military might in Washington on Veterans Day, but it was derailed last August after objections by the city’s officials, concerns from the Pentagon and a price tag of more than $90 million.
Mr. Trump then mused about hosting a smaller military-themed parade on Independence Day. But Pentagon brass kept quiet and hoped the issue would go away, according to one Defense Department official, who spoke about the internal discussions on condition of anonymity.
But in early June, the White House called, and with less than 30 days before the United States’ 243rd birthday, Pentagon officials started drawing up a plan.
Two Defense Department officials said the vision for a relatively small contribution from the military was greatly expanded over the past two weeks.
A third official said that the ceremony would cost the military well over $1 million and that many in the Pentagon saw it as a waste of resources and money.
It is unclear what the president’s salute to the armed forces will cost American taxpayers. It has already forced the National Park Service to divert $2.5 million from other park uses, according to a person familiar with the decision. The Washington Post first reported the diversion of funds.
Defense Department officials said Mr. Trump insisted on including tanks in the celebration, prompting a scramble among officials at Fort Stewart in Georgia to move the vehicles to Washington and position them around the Lincoln Memorial instead of parading them down streets and over bridges that would be damaged under the heavy load.
Originally, 1,000 troops were supposed to participate in the event, but that number was whittled down to 300 — including about a dozen who were ordered to build a platform for the tanks to keep from damaging the ground beneath, one of the department officials said. Another military official said troops are also being tasked with disassembling the tank stands and cleaning up at 2 a.m. Friday, after the celebration ends.
Some military units stationed in the capital region are having difficulty getting enough troops to carry out these mundane tasks on such short notice because many troops are already on leave for the holiday.
The service songs for each branch of the military will be played while aircraft soar above.
A portion of the area in front of the Lincoln Memorial will be roped off as a V.I.P. section, White House officials confirmed. The tickets for that section will be free, but some of them are being distributed by the Republican National Committee to Mr. Trump’s donors and political backers. The White House also provided 5,000 tickets to the Department of Defense.
Armored vehicles previously have been showcased in Washington, including for defense industry conferences in the city’s convention center, and the number of tanks and other military gear that was moved by rail, crane and truck for Thursday’s festivities fell short by comparison.
Phillip Carter, a former Pentagon official and an Iraq war veteran who is now at RAND Corporation specializing in veterans and military personnel issues, said that the display of vehicles would be smaller than what the military branches display during recruiting events around the country.
“There are far more consequential questions of strategy and civil-military relations, from Afghanistan to Korea to the war on terrorism, that we ought to be debating,” Mr. Carter said.
On Wednesday, the Pentagon announced that the acting Defense Secretary, Mark T. Esper, and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would join Mr. Trump at the festivities.
Many other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and service secretaries, however, had planned leaves or were on official travel, and were sending deputies in their place.
Loren DeJonge Schulman, a senior Defense Department official during the Obama administration, said Mr. Trump has inaccurately implied that Pentagon leaders support the parade and its military showmanship.
“They owe it to the American people to correct the record,” said Ms. Schulman, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “The parade is clearly about glorifying the president.”